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Dallas clears homeless camp amid I-45 work, prompting backlash

 Homeless resident faced by Dallas Marshal at homeless camp sweep
Pablo Arauz Peña
A Dallas city Marshall faces a homeless resident who's removing his tent at Coombs camp in South Dallas during a homeless sweep on June 6, 2023.

Up until Thursday, Alfonso Jackson lived in a tent near Interstate 45 in South Dallas. It was part of a site known as the Coombs camp that's existed for years.

But on Thursday morning, city workers and law enforcement began removing residents and their belongings amid construction on I-45.

Jackson said he was notified just last week to vacate the camp — and he was not aware of a plan for residents to find housing.

“There’s a lot of people here, so if they pull us out of here, where else are we going to go?" Jackson said. "They should probably help us out or place us somewhere, rather than have to go scattered all over the city.”

In an email, city spokesperson Jennifer Brown said the city had been working with the Office of Code Compliance to provide cleaning supplies such as trash bins, bags and brooms as far back as last summer.

While that was a short-term solution, the city anticipated closing the camp to provide housing to residents as part of its rapid rehousing initiative.

The Coombs camp was known as one of the city’s oldest encampments. Its residents were mostly elderly and disabled, said Jonathan Guadian, who volunteers for Say It With Your Chest, an organization run by Dallas residents that advocates for the unhoused population and provides food and other necessities.

"Many of the times these folks are hanging on by a thread," Guadian said.

 A notice to vacate the Coombs homeless camp in South Dallas
Pablo Arauz Peña
This notice was handed out by the city a week prior to the homeless sweep of Coombs camp in South Dallas.

Brown, the Dallas spokesperson, also said the city received notice from the Texas Department of Transportation that construction on I-45 would begin June 3. TXDoT confirmed there will be construction on three lanes southbound from Friday evening to 5 a.m. Monday morning.

The city said it had to change its strategy after asking TXDoT for as much time as possible to sweep the camp. Brown also said city partners including Housing Forward, The Bridge, Our Calling and others are available to assist in providing resources to residents.

"[The city's office of homeless solutions] outreach and partners will be onsite for those who remain," Brown said. "This will give us sufficient time to connect anyone needing more assistance or services to them ahead of the June 3 cutoff date."

Dallas and Collin counties have seen some early success in reducing homelessness in part due to unprecedented levels of federal funding.

In May, the Biden administration announced the region would get even more federal help as part of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness All INside Initiative. The program is designed to provide staff and resources to help lower the number of unsheltered people in the area.

But advocates were skeptical of whether the assistance that's been provided so far did much for unhoused populations.

"The last vouchers that were provided to people were for residencies that many of these folks ended up not wanting, because of the conditions that they were in," Guadian said. "So people ended up abandoning these locations and coming back to their unhoused encampments."

Residents and advocates also say camp sweeps like the one on Thursday can, in some cases, make life worse for residents.

“Whenever the city does end up displacing them from their known residency, then they will often get lost in the system," Guadian said. "We have heard cases of some people who were very close or at the top of the list to finally receive some form of housing, and when they miss their appointments with the city, they end up having to start that process entirely over."

That often happens because residents are displaced from the camps where caseworkers can easily find them, Guadian added.

Camp resident Randall Curtis said he also wasn't aware of a plan to house him.

"They gave us plenty of notice this time, but usually they come and take all of our stuff," Curtis said.

 Randall Curtis was one of the residents at the Coombs camp in South Dallas.
Pablo Arauz Peña
Randall Curtis, an unhoused resident, says he wasn't informed of a plan to find housing following the camp sweep on June 1, 2023.

Many times residents can lose important documents in the process of the sweeps, such as social security cards and birth certificates.

Say It With Your Chest has called on the city to provide the displaced residents housing vouchers.

Guadian said his advocacy group has not heard back from the city or City Councilmember Adam Bazaldua, who represents the district in which the Coombs camp is located. (Bazaldua's office referred requests for comment to the city.)

The official homeless count in Dallas and Collin counties is 4,244, but that number may be higher.

"We recognize that these sweeps, or 'debris cleanups' as the city camouflages the language, is a violent event that displaces many people and allows them to lose many of the community that they've already built," Guadian said.

Additional reporting by Christopher Connelly.

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Pablo Arauz Peña is the breaking news reporter for KERA News.